making their case

As pink slips go out to Detroit principals and school leaders, some are pleading their case to the school board

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

A handful of Detroit school administrators filed into a quiet conference room, ready to fight for their jobs. They had twenty minutes to make their case. Most carried a written version of the appeal they wanted to make to the school board.

The end of the school year is approaching and 16 district administrators just learned that they might not be coming back next year.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is about to enter his second year as the district’s leader, issued “non-renewal notices,” to four school principals and 12 central office administrators.

But at the district’s Fisher Building headquarters on Tuesday, the people on the chopping block were all given a chance to appeal. Seven of them took the superintendent up on his offer to defend their work, with several scheduled for hearings Tuesday and others set for Wednesday.

The process, though likely difficult for the 16 people on the chopping block, was more measured than the one used in the past.

Previously, when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers, “non-renewals” went out every year to every non-union employee in the district — hundreds of people — forcing them to reapply for their jobs.

Emergency managers “just said, non-renew everybody and we’ll figure out the budget,” said Deborah Louis-Ake, president of the Detroit Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, a union representing school administrators. She was in the conference room on Tuesday morning, advocating for a financial administrator who appealed his case to the school board. Nonetheless, she said the process was more predictable this year. “I think these are planned non-renewals,” she said.

Last year, as the district was transitioning to Vitti from an interim superintendent, non-renewals went out to central office staff. Vitti ended up cutting dozens of jobs, and moving certified educators back into classrooms to help alleviate the district’s teacher shortage. (Here’s how the district payroll changed between June and October).

Changes to this year’s process are part of a broader effort to reestablish stability in the district after more than seven years of five different emergency managers, Vitti said.

Even for high-performing employees, it was “demoralizing to get a non-renewal letter,” Vitti told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “It created instability.”

Touch-and-go job security, heaped on top of relatively low pay, made it hard for the district to attract strong administrators, according to Louis-Ake.

Once the seven administrators have had a chance to plead their case, the board will make final personnel decisions at a meeting on May 21, Vitti said.

Among those facing ousters are four principals who were singled out for failings such as poor communication with parents or bungled finances. Not all will lose their place in the district entirely.

Allan Cosma, principal of Ludington Magnet Middle and Honors School, could be demoted to assistant principal, a position that Vitti says would better suit his skills. Vitti first proposed firing Cosma in April after an audit turned up a financial issue. After a large group of supporters fought for him at a school board meeting, the board voted to place him on a 30-day unpaid leave.

The other 15 administrators were not identified by the district. Their appeal hearings were closed to the public, standard procedure for discussions of individual employees’ job performance. Board member LaMar Lemmons confirmed that Cosma was again appealing to the board, noting that the situation had been previously reported.

No principals are being fired this year because of low test scores, but Vitti says that’s likely to change next year. By then, school leaders will be expected to improve on this year’s academic performance, Vitti said. He is using tools such as “data chats” where principals analyze test scores and attendance rates to help spread leadership skills throughout the district.

By next year, principals whose performance is found lacking will know what to expect, said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman.

“There’s no emergency manager that’s going to come in here in April and hand out non-renewals based on something that no one understands,” she said. “It’s a sign of stability.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.